Cameo’s Larry Blackmon has worn the same valentine-red codpiece for 30 years, but it’s worked for him as a signature accessory and has remained perennially in style no matter the decade. The codpiece has seen it all: ‘80s gross extravagance, ‘90s post-nuclear psychedelia, ‘00s pent-up duality. It has transcended its own form (it brings to mind a vintage, Ferrari-shaped leather couch) and become an artifact capable of living on its own, replete with its own particular confidence. In other words, a classic.
"'Glass Swords' is a deliberate album, obviously technical but about being beautiful more than anything else."
So there are ways to pay homage to the past, and to mine it, without coming off like a curmudgeonly book thesis. It is possible to elevate past the kitsch, the irony, the nostalgia that has woven itself through pop culture since the ‘70s began fetishizing the ‘50s, and to create something entirely unique and wonderful using the tools the past has given us. In dance music, there was no better example of this in 2011 than Glass Swords (Warp), the debut full-length album by Glaswegian producer Rustie, who has drawn on an obvious affinity for the chasmic solos and beefy funk synths of the ‘80s (including Cameo’s “Candy,” which parallels parts of Glass Swords’ “Hover Traps”), but has filtered them into his own gleaming mold. It sounds nothing much like homage, and more transmitted from their own crystal planet -- the sparkly, CGI-looking cover art is a perfect touchstone -- and with his capacity for epic trills, you almost wish he’d get booked at Tomorrowland 2012, just so you could hear Glass Swords as loud as possible. Still, it’s hard to see him enjoying such a shameless display of excess: Rustie is so famously shy that he declined an interview, even over email, for this piece. (Here’s his reticence on display at Dummy—illuminating in some ways, but also tangibly bashful.)
Synth-funk dabbling has become a bit more in fashion lately, thanks in part to the impeccable twerks of Dam-Funk and his live band Master Blazter (R.I.P. to that band’s drummer J1, who passed away in an accident in Sweden on November 27). But Rustie’s take on it is subtly smattered with pop-culture references -- the aforementioned “Hover Traps” samples The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, for instance -- and aims for cinematic bigness, perhaps a side-effect of the big-room rave culture in his adopted home of London, or just some simpler type of above-the-atmosphere, synaesthetic vision. Either impulse is devastating. Rustie’s been known to dance heads as the promising young dude dropping songs that slapped on impeccable boutique labels and, last year, a suitably massive EP on Warp, but this is completely next level, as they say in the biz. It’s like he’s become possessed. Second single “Ultra Thizz,” referencing Bay Area slang for ecstasy, contains no less than three hefty synth solos, which clamor upon each other for primacy, but don’t over-complicate thanks to Rustie’s well-placed breaks. That’s the thing -- whatever the rack sounds he uses, whatever the samples he culls, the composition on Glass Swords is what makes it an amazing album. By fan favorite “Cry Flames,” which paraphrases the belch on Ginuwine’s “Pony,” it’s hard to believe that Rustie didn’t compose the album with a complete, 10- or 12-piece R&B/funk band. (Memo to whomever’s helping his live set up: handle that.) There are bits and pieces that adhere to form—the occasional dubsteppy snare, mostly, along with “City Star”’s grime-ready punches -- but they don’t feel like concessions. Glass Swords is a deliberate album, obviously technical but about being beautiful more than anything else. That skill and talent, along with influences and cultural savvy, are the means to get there is actually somewhat liberating. “Ice Tunnels” is actually just a lengthy piano jazz interlude, albeit played on some kind of crystal-fantasia soundbank setting. “All Nite” is dying for a vocal solo from the pre-born again Vanity 6, but the elated, just-got-paid, processed, party samples will do. And if not, improvise: “Surph” features screwed-up vocals from Rustie and fellow producer/DJ Nightwave, who sounds like a second cousin to Janet Jackson -- a worthy reference this year, as with labelmate and fellow funk head Hudson Mohawke’s remix of “The Pleasure Principle,” probably the most satisfying Janet remix of all time.
But that’s the crux of it—time and again, Glass Swords invokes past funk elements, but Rustie’s creativity trumps a reference. Pull it apart, and what remains is one of the best records in any genre this year, blinding with ambition and scope, but utterly cohesive and magical. And as he transgresses mode across dance, R&B, new age, funk, jazz, prog, house, hip-hop, glitch, bass, and maybe the homies from Mannheim Steamroller, Rustie confounds expectations. His only instinct, it seems, is to let it live, until it congeals for all time.
Rustie's Glass Swords is out now via Warp Records.